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Farrell encouraged but Ireland are 'a work in progress' heading into 2021

The head coach has had an up-and-down first year in charge of Ireland.

Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell after Ireland's win over Scotland.
Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell after Ireland's win over Scotland.
Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

PLAYED NINE, WON six, lost three.

Andy Farrell isn’t deluding himself about where his Ireland team stands in the pecking order of the Six Nations but he will reflect on 2020 as having been a decent start to a tenure that is contracted to last through to the 2023 World Cup.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora deemed the Irish performances so far to be “average,” yet Farrell’s winning record at this stage is second only to Joe Schmidt’s as a pure percentage [67% to Schmidt's 73%] when it comes to Ireland head coaches.

Farrell’s first year in charge of Ireland saw them beat Scotland at home twice, win against Wales twice in Dublin, beat Italy at the Aviva Stadium, as well as overcome Georgia in rather stuttering fashion.

The defeats have come away to Eddie Jones’ England twice and against France in Paris. Ireland will feel they are the best of the rest behind those two powerhouses. 

There have been 11 news caps under Farrell in the form of Caelan Doris, Ronan Kelleher, Max Deegan, Hugo Keenan, Will Connors, Ed Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park, James Lowe, Billy Burns, Shane Daly, and Eric O’Sullivan.

Of those, Doris is already an important player, Keenan has excelled, and Lowe should prove to be a valuable addition in the long run. 

Having used 42 players overall in his first year in charge, Farrell can argue that he has given plenty of chances but he will obviously be refining his playing pool for the 2021 Six Nations, which is just nine weeks away.

Farrell will hope that the likes of Garry Ringrose, Jordan Larmour, Tadhg Furlong, Dave Kilcoyne, Tom O’Toole, and Ryan Baird are fit to feature too, having missed all or part of this autumn scheduled through injury.

andy-farrell-during-the-warm-up Farrell has won six of his nine games with Ireland so far. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Dan Leavy could be in the mix too if continues his recovery, while Farrell will hope to see Joey Carbery and Will Addison making their returns from injury next year too. The reality, of course, is that while some of them may be back, other players will pick up injuries before Ireland travel to Cardiff to take on Wales on 7 February.

Farrell’s Ireland have operated with a more laidback environment than was the case under previous boss Schmidt, with the players seemingly enjoying the shift of tone behind the scenes.

The introduction of high performance specialist Gary Keegan in recent weeks seems like a positive initiative and it will be fascinating to hear what influence he has moving forward, having spent this period observing how Ireland operate.

Former team manager Mick Kearney has been back with the squad in 2020 and remains a popular figure, while Farrell has invited a handful of guest speakers into camp too, even if there have been Covid-related challenges there. Roy Keane was a popular visitor to the squad in the week of their recent clash with England, apparently enthralling the Irish players over the course of several hours.

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The sounds off the pitch have been good and Farrell is well-liked by his players. What really matters is what they serve up on the pitch and in this sense it has been an up-and-down year for Ireland.

New attack coach Mike Catt is a major part of Ireland’s bid to have a less rigidly structured attacking game, with players being backed in their decision-making, but the results haven’t been particularly impressive. These things take time, though, and the 2021 Six Nations will tell us a lot more after a few promising signs flitted in and out of Ireland’s game this year.

Scrum coach John Fogarty and lineout guru Simon Easterby will be working hard over the coming months after some costly hiccups in those areas this autumn. Ireland’s maul is simply no longer a weapon and that has to change next year. 

Richie Murphy has prompted some encouraging signs from Ireland’s kicking game and would have enjoyed some of the stuff they threw at Scotland yesterday but it’s certainly another area where they can be more consistent and clinical.

keith-earls-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try-with-caelan-doris-and-robbie-henshaw Ireland ended their 2020 with a 31-16 win over Scotland yesterday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Ending a long autumn campaign in winning fashion against the Scots yesterday was, of course, very welcome for Farrell but the Ireland head coach underlined that his team still has lots of improvements to make.

“A work in progress, as I suppose it should always be,” said Farrell of where Ireland stand heading into 2021.

“It’s well documented about the number of players we’ve used and a few injuries along the way have influenced that but at the same time, we’ve grown the group.

“We’ve had a pretty diverse group during this time as far as maturity, age-wise, regarding international rugby. I felt that gap has really closed and we’ve made some massive learnings from that and that sends a massive statement overall.”

The Six Nations is only around the corner so Farrell will be watching with interest as the provinces play four Champions Cup games and three inter-pros each in the next two months. 

With England and France visiting Dublin in next year’s championship, Farrell will be targetting a big win in one of those fixtures, while visits to Wales, Scotland, and Italy offer chances for his first away win as Ireland boss. 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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